Back in 2005 when I retired from the guide business, the Mulchatna caribou herd was crashing. I had guided for them through the peak which topped out at about 250,000 caribou. It dropped to an estimated 80,000 or so and finally dropped on down to about 60,000. Those caribou hunts were by far the most fun hunting experiences that I have ever had and I have always wanted all of my grandchildren to have that experience.
Over the years I have kept in touch with Rick Grant, Tikchik Airventures, who purchased AAA’s camp at Otter Lake in Western Alaska. That was the camp that I was personally responsible for from 1987 to 2004. I have many wonderful memories of that area. During the last couple of years, Rick mentioned that the caribou herd was starting to increase in numbers, nothing like the peak but just getting better. In late October 2018, he told me that there were quite a few small groups around Otter Lake during the first few weeks of September. He also told me that he had not used the camp in the last three years and really hadn’t used it much over the last ten years. He told me that I was welcome to use it if I wanted. That was music to my ears. I told him I would check with my son-in-law, Sagen, to see if he thought the kids would be interested. Sagen was sure we could get at least 3 or 4 to go with us. Fast forward to Christmas time, we had a total of 10 going. That small army, turned out to be approximately three Beaver loads. I gave Rick a call to get us on the schedule for September 7 returning on the 16th. Man, I was already getting excited.
There are many things to do when planning a hunt, but for ten people! It was like planning a guided hunt and I had done many of those. I started emailing Denise, Rick’s wife and partner, in the spring asking her many questions about the status of the camp, i.e., condition of cook tent and other structures, 4-wheeler (no longer serviceable), boat, cooking stove and everything needed to prepare food for ten people. I’m sure she got tired of all the questions and emails. She told me that they had removed most of the client and guide tents along with the supply and meat hanging tents, but the cooking tent was in good shape along with all of the utensils and pots and pans that I had left when I sold the camp to them.
After a summer of buying supplies, planning meals and everyone purchasing their tickets it was time to ship everything to Dillingham. Sagen and I decided to go out a day early to get the camp ready for the gang which included my two grandsons Jared and Nathan, granddaughter Rachel and fiancé Hadley, Nate, my granddaughter Jordan’s husband, Thor, Sagen’s brother, Jens and Jack, Thor’s sons. Four of us were not hunting, we were just there for the enjoyment and being a part of the hunt. I had big expectations telling Rick that we only wanted to take three or four big caribou, one moose 65+” and a couple of brown bears in the eight and a half foot class. In the old days everything would have been possible except for maybe taking a couple of brown bears.
Sagen and I were flown in during a storm and were on the last flight out of Shannon’s pond in a Cessna 206. That night the winds increased to close to 50 mph with driving rain all night long. The cook tent was in great shape with no leaks. It was like I had stepped back in time with the table cloth and cabinet covers being the ones that I used fifteen years ago when I sold the camp. Stove, pots, pans, dishes and even some of my old spices were still there. The big wood stove that Sagen had made 20 years ago worked great. We were going to have a toasty camp.
The next morning the clouds were on the deck and the winds had somewhat subsided so things got better as the day progressed. That afternoon instead of two Beaver loads, they brought everyone and our supplies in one Beaver and two 206 loads. We are now ready for the hunt.
That afternoon we set up two 6-man Eureka draw-tite tents for the sleeping tents, cut some wood for the wood stove, carried water and got the camp set up like a guide operation. Everyone then went up to the lake to explore. While we were there, we spotted a small herd of six bull caribou including two in the 350 class and were definitely shooters. But Alaska law forbids hunting the same day airborne so we watched them disappear around the lake. We felt it was a great sign for taking three or four bulls in the following eight days. Most of the young clan did some fishing for lake trout and grayling. A great set up day for sure.
The morning of our first hunting day we were fogged in and I was pretty sure the dew point and temperature were close to the same. However, I felt it would lift. I fixed everyone a great breakfast of bacon and eggs along with my wife’s delicious banana bread. It was a great way to start the day. Around 10:30 am the fog lifted and we all went hunting. Thor and his sons went east to the base of “Ron’s roost” which was the mountain at the end of Otter Lake. We headed to the west to what we called “the cut” overlooking the “killing fields.” In the old days when the caribou were coming through by the thousands you could always find five or six gut piles scattered on the tundra in that area. We spotted our first groups of caribou on and around “sugarloaf” but no bulls of any size. There were about forty total. Somewhere around the middle of the day we heard gunshots coming from the direction where Thor and his sons had gone. That was a good sign. Later that day it started raining so we made a makeshift shelter to keep us out of the rain as much as possible. We spotted one bear on the hillside feeding on berries but he was a small guy. Sometime in the late afternoon we spotted a good sized bear with silver ears moving across the flats. He was feeding but was traveling fairly fast. We decided to make a stalk. We were trying to get the wind in our favor but he was moving too fast and dropped into the creek. I decided we needed to get to the bench on the mountainside so we could get a better view of the creek. We crossed a swamp and got on the bench. If he came our way, we had him. We sat there for about an hour and never saw him again. I assumed he went fishing. We headed back to our spotting hill. It was getting late, so we decided to call it a day and headed back to camp to do some fishing.
When we got back to camp, I found that the pork chops that I had planned to have for dinner were still frozen so I told the gang to catch us at least five fish for supper. They caught six big lake trout for a great supper with rice and frozen mixed vegetables.
Thor and his sons showed up with a 7 ½ foot boar brown bear that Jens had taken. A great start for the hunt. A 7 ½ foot brown bear in this area in the fall is close to the average size. AAA always advertised a 7 ½ to 8-foot average size for brown bear in our Western Alaska area during the fall. Our average in the spring was around 8 ½ foot.
Day two started with better weather. As the clouds lifted above the tops of the mountains we headed out. This time both groups were headed west. Thor and his boys were going to “the cut” and we were going to “Fannie Hill,” both great places from which to spot. Fannie Hill was about a mile and a half from base camp. Once we arrived, we started glassing and I set up the 45 power Bausch & Lomb spotting scope. The first bear we spotted was a small bear feeding on blueberries on the hill above the cut. Then Nate spotted a good size bear right at the top of the brush line also feeding on berries on the next mountain over. It was about two and a half miles from our spotting hill. It looked to be the bear with silver ears that we had spotted the day before. We kept glassing the bear above the cut and the one with the silver ears. We were wondering if Thor and his sons had spotted the bear above the cut and as we were looking below the bear we spotted them getting set up for a shot. I was looking in the spotting scope when the trigger was pulled and the bear went down. That was our second bear down in two days. After that excitement we decided we needed to get ready to go after the bear that was two and a half miles away. We were looking the mountain over and spotted another bear a half mile further away and higher up. He was a large boar, blockier than the bear with silver ears. The bear was high on the mountain and three miles as the crow flies but in reality, was at least five miles away. He was feeding in approximately a hundred yard circle. We watched him for about a half an hour. He didn’t look like he was going any place too soon. I have seen these guys feed for hours if they are in good berries. We decided to head his way and hoped he stayed put in that area.
A mile into the stalk we stopped for lunch. He was still feeding in the same circle and in the hour that we had been watching him he had only moved up about a hundred yards. Everything looked good. The wind was in our favor and all we had to do was find a good way to cross the creek and get through the swamp. I had crossed there in the past so things went smoothly. Once we made it to the hill that he was feeding on he started feeding across a shale slide. Not many berries there, so he moved at a faster pace. Not what we were hoping for. It had been three hours since we started the stalk and it wasn’t looking too good. We moved below him trying to intercept him as he fed above us. He went over a small ridge and out of site. We stopped for a breather and Nathan said, “Look above at the main ridge, there’s a bear chasing a small band of caribou!” It could have been the second bear that we had spotted that had gone over the main ridge earlier or maybe a third bear. There was a small bull in the group but not a shooter for sure. A neat sight for everyone to see.
We moved further up the hillside and as we moved over a small knoll there was the big bear. He was again feeding in a circle which meant another good berry patch. The wind was great and we had clumps of alder for cover. The seven of us continued to get closer. Rachel had first dibs as our first brown bear shooter so she was using Sagen’s old .300 Winchester Magnum that he had recently restored. Sagen was the main back-up shooter using my .375 Magnum because for some reason when it’s one of my grandkids shooting I get so involved helping them that I forget to shoot. Jared is second with the .264 Ackley Improved which is not much of a back-up caliber. Nathan had Jared’s .30-30 with open sight’s which wouldn’t help at all. We move closer and closer and then ran out of alder. It was about 178 yards so everyone got set up on the packs. I told Rachel that as soon as she had a good broadside shot to take him. Her first shot was a good shoulder shot. It didn’t put him down so everyone fired and he rolled down the mountain. It was captured on film by Nate.
The bear was a dandy boar somewhere between 8 ½ and 9’, a super bear for this area in the fall. Just what we were looking for. We were able to take groups of photos as the sun was shining. During the stalk it had rained off and on but now was beautiful. We were above the brush with a nice wind to keep the numerous bugs off. We skinned the bear and did some exploring inside the cavity. The bear’s stomach was overstuffed with different berries but mainly blueberries. We all loaded up and Nate volunteered to carry the bear with his new Barney’s pack frame. We headed back to camp. I checked my Fitbit as we arrived at camp. We had walked 12 miles. Not a bad day for a bear stalk.
That night we had hamburger patties, mashed potatoes and green beans. Nathan wanted us to bring back the bear heart so we had fried bear heart after the meal. That was my first time eating bear heart and I must say it wasn’t as good as most animal hearts that I have eaten. But I will try anything once.
The next two or three days we spent looking for caribou with no luck. They had disappeared. We told the boys that the caribou might be moving through the valley that had an old tent frame that we called the chalet. It was about seven air miles north west. Nate, Nathan and Jared took off early in the morning for that valley. They made a 20-mile circle according to the Fitbit and never spotted a caribou. The wind had stopped that day and the bugs were unbelievable. The boys used the cheese cloth meat bags to cover their heads and said they thought they were in Africa with all the bugs. The majority of the bugs were a version of “white socks,” an aggressive small black fly, along with a few mosquitoes and no-see-ums. I will have to say, this was the worst year that I have ever experienced in that area for those annoying critters. There had not been a frost or any kind of freeze to kill them so they were in full force. If the wind hadn’t been blowing 90% of the time it would have been a brutal hunt.
The afternoon of hunting day five we had another major storm with winds up to 50 mph and rain. We had hiked east where we were mainly glassing and calling for moose. It was in an area where AAA had harvested three or four moose with their spread in the mid-60’s. In the old days I could land the “super cub” within a half mile of where we had killed most of the moose. But, if we took a moose here, the boys would have had a two mile pack in rolling hills just to get back to the end of Otter Lake. We decided to head back to camp. When we got back to camp Thor and the boys were there weathering out the storm. Time for drying out our rain gear, enjoying the wood stove, drinking hot drinks and playing card games and cribbage. It was a fun evening with lots of laughter and everyone enjoying the games.
Our group hadn’t spotted a caribou in three days. The only thing we spotted were brown bears. We must have seen at least 10 to 12 bears. Twice as many as back in the day.
The next day we headed back to the west to “Fannie Hill” and Thor and his boys were going to row the boat to the end of the lake and climb to the top of “Ron’s Roast.” That day we didn’t spot an animal and ended up coming back to call for moose overlooking the creek behind camp which was another good place where AAA had taken a few moose, the largest being a 67 incher. It was our second time calling moose from this lookout but we didn’t see a single one. Once back at camp Thor told us he had spotted a big moose moving up the little King Salmon creek where we had been the day before. We decided to go back that way to find that moose.
Early the next morning the kids paddled the canoe and rowed the small boat to the end of the lake in case we shot the moose that day. Sagen and I walked around the lake so we wouldn’t overload the boats. It was a great hunting day weather wise but the wind was not in our favor for hunting the swamp tree grove. We kept our distance from where Thor had spotted the moose the night before hoping the wind would change later that day. It changed about 45 degrees but still not the best for a stalk. About 3:30 pm Sagen started calling and called off and on until about 6:00 pm. We decided since it was our last day to hunt moose, we would try to allow the moose to get our wind and show himself. We never saw or heard anything.
As we were heading back to camp late that evening, I was thinking that there was no way that I had not spotted a single moose, cow or bull. That was unbelievable and for the caribou to have already moved through the camp and that we only saw the two shooter bulls on the day the kids flew in. What a disappointment. I’m really bummed that Nate, my grandson-in-law, didn’t get to take a moose or caribou since that would have been his first big game animal.
I will have to say that despite not getting any caribou or moose it was a great hunt for me to get to spend quality time with my grandkids and, who goes on a resident hunt and harvests three brown bears. They loved being out at the camp, playing cards and just having fun. They truly loved the lake fishing. Of course, Rachel taking an 8’8” brown bear was my high point. It is remarkable that she has harvested the two hardest animals to take in Alaska, a Dall sheep and a brown bear, but has not harvested the easiest of all, a caribou. She has been on six different caribou hunts just looking for that big one. Oh well I guess that’s why they call it hunting instead of killing, maybe next time.
Thanks to Rick and Denise of Tikchik Airventures for letting us use the camp. It brought back so many great memories and created many more. If anyone out there is looking for a great flying service to drop you off north of Dillingham, they are the best.
If you want to see some YouTube videos on the hunt highlight this link https://youtu.be/bxMNPDKbm9I